In 1848, at Oxford University, there was formed a society of painters, sculptors, and writers, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. These men were destined to have a great influence on art and literature. Their chief doctrine was a fidelity to nature and a sincerity in practical work. Their influence was to be felt later in useful as well as in fine arts.
A few years after this Pre-Raphaelite group was formed at Oxford, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones came as students to train for the ministry. Inspired by Carlyle and Ruskin, these two and a few other fellow-students read, discussed, and thought. They also worked and wrote. The profession for which they had begun to train was forgotten and they set about to become artists, not artists merely in the sense of painting pictures, but in a more general sense.
In the field of art in textiles and house furnishings, Morris has been most influential, although inspired and aided for years by Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and others. The extent of Morris's work was marvelous. It has been said that he accomplished more than seven ordinary men.
Beginning as poet and painter, he studied architecture at Oxford. On going up to London he deplored the condition of the houses of the period. When he found it impossible to buy any furniture that he would have in his rooms, he had some made from his own designs. When the furniture was built, Rossetti painted the panels for him. The result was rather mediaeval, but was a start in the direction of better lines and greater usefulness.
Later, when he was to be married and wished a house to live in, he found he must build the house and everything which was to go into it, so impossible was it to satisfy his artistic taste with the degraded decoration of the English market. Red House, as he called his home, opened a new era in house decoration. Appreciating the facts that a house is built for the needs of the owner and that the individuality of the owner may be expressed therein, every bit of construction, decoration, and furnishing was carefully worked out in order that Red House might be truly his own. Although Philip Webb was the architect, through the work of decoration and furnishing Morris first showed his wonderful skill as a workman. In whatever medium he was moved to work, he proved himself master. Wood, glass, plaster, clay, leather, textile fabrics, and wall paper, all had their turn. Bookbinding or tapestry weaving, he put his whole heart and soul into the work, and his results were wonderful.
In 1861, as a result of their cooperation in Red House, Morris and his fellow-artists established the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company, Decorative Artists. Associated with the firm were Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, Burne-Jones, Philip Webb, and others. They advertised to do work in glass, wood or stone carving, pottery, metals, embroidery, and furniture. At first an experiment in a new line, the work of the firm soon became known, and their beautiful windows, tiles, etc., gained a place in the best churches and private houses of the time.
Later, interested in producing beautiful prints on cloth or on wall papers and in reviving the tapestry and rug weaving industries, workshops were established in London and then at Merton Abbey, where hand weaving, dyeing, and printing were carried on. The Merton Abbey workshops had the advantage of abundance of sunlight, fresh air, and beautiful country environment, excellent attributes for the production of artistic work.
The whole spirit of Morris's works and writings emphasized the necessity of better conditions for the workman, higher ideals for the product, and the existence of beauty in the most commonplace things. Sham work he believed to be hurtful to the buyer, more hurtful to the seller, but most hurtful to the maker. He felt that the age of machinery had brought the competition of cheapness rather than of excellence, that a great change must take place in the public attitude toward art and industry, and that the two must be more united if the hideousness of the age was to be at all lessened.
The whole life of Morris, the study of his writings and his work, is an inspiration to all those who are interested in making the world more beautiful, in raising the standards of art in every-day life, and in bettering the conditions of the worker. There have been few men who have accomplished such a mass of work in a lifetime, few who have left their impression on so many fields of human effort. He was a poet, story-writer, essayist, socialist, printer, bookbinder, illustrator, painter, designer, carver, potter, weaver, dyer, leather worker, embroiderer, glass worker, and metal worker. How many men could add as many trades to their name? The most wonderful part of it all is that Morris was skilled in each. He has been the inspiration for the best that has been done in decorative art for nearly a half century, the force that set England, America, and most of Europe thinking and turned the tide of the fast disappearing handcrafts.
The Arts and Crafts movement in England and America is one outgrowth of this new interest in applied arts. In the minds of many, Arts and Crafts means merely shops where hand-made articles are offered for sale, or it may be the name brings to mind a type of ornament represented by the severely plain, straight-line candlestick or writing set, the stenciled crash table-runner or pillow top, the simple rag rug, etc. The movement has sometimes come into disrepute because it has been judged solely by these things, which in some cases have little or no real artistic value.